The Jaguar MkII 3.8 - The world's first super-saloon
Think BMW invented the fast four-door? Think again...
The problem with claiming to be the first in the world to do something is that likely as not, the moment you do, someone you’ve never heard of will crawl out of the woodwork to tell anyone who’ll listen that you are a brazen liar, and actually they did it first.
I’ll give you an example. On the 9th May 1926, a pair of American chaps by the names of Richard E. Byrd and Floyd Bennett claimed to have made the first successful flight over the North Pole in their Fokker aeroplane. This startling achievement was accepted and celebrated by all concerned. But then just three days later, the Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen (you know him, he was the baddie in Scott of the Antarctic) strode in and announced in a booming voice that because Byrd and Bennett had taken-off and landed at the same airfield, it was actually he who should be credited with the first flight.
We see much the same thing in the world of cars. Ask anybody who is even vaguely interested in the subject what the world’s first hot hatchback was and they’ll all give you the same answer; the 1976 VW Golf GTI. Which would be absolutely spot-on, if it weren’t for the Autobianchi A112 Abarth of 1971 or the 1973-vintage SIMCA 1100Ti. We celebrate the Golf, whilst the true pioneers of hot-hatchery are all but forgotten.
You may have noticed that I’m waffling a bit here, and that’s because I’m getting ready to stand up and relieve myself all over some of the holiest ground in cardom. You may wish to sit down and loosen any restrictive clothing now. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The BMW M5 was not the world’s first super-saloon. Sorry, but you can stop throwing things and swearing at the screen now because it’s true. The M5 is, and has always been brilliant. It doesn’t matter which of the six versions we’ve seen since 1986 you choose. It has always been a magnificent, five-star car. But it doesn’t even come close to being the original fast four-door. That accolade lies with the car I’ve been driving, the 3.8 litre Jaguar Mark Two.
The MkII Jag was introduced back in 1959 and lived until 1968 when it made way for the original XJ6. But it never truly etched itself on the consciousness of the British public until the 1970’s when worthless second-hand examples were often used as getaway cars by pretend baddies on television in ‘The Sweeney’.
To be honest, I could never figure out why this was. I mean, even compared to Jack Regan’s Ford Granada*, the Jag with its wire wheels and big chrome grille looked like an old relic. If that chase were to happen for real, I reckoned, the crims would be locked up quicker than you could say “police brutality”.
However, when I got behind the thin-rimmed wheel of a MkII for the first time this week, it very quickly became apparent that the truth is that if ‘The Sweeney’ had been real, the brown Granada would have seriously had its work cut out to keep up.
Beneath the Parish Council-bodywork, the Jaguar’s 3.8 litre straight-six engine is in essence the same as the one used in the Series One E-type. Alright, in the MkII you only get two SU carburettors instead of the three fitted to an E-type, but on the basis that carbs are the brainchild of Beelzebub himself, this doesn’t bother me unduly. Besides, even with one mixture chamber fewer, the 220bhp (gross) MkII is only about thirty horsepower down on its two-door cousin.
The result of this is the sort of performance that feels pretty brisk by the standards of today, but in 1965, when the car I drove was new, it must have been absolutely mind-bending. Let me put it this way. If you went out and bought a brand-new M5 today you’d have a car that can get from 0 to 60mph in a blistering 3.3 seconds. That’s very, very fast, but the fifty-five year old Jaguar I drove would be there just five seconds later. At a time when an ordinary family car could barely crack 80mph with the wind behind it, the 3.8 litre Jaguar could hit 125.
Then there are the brakes. Back then, stopping distances, even on Ferraris, were measured to the nearest mile. The Jag was one of the first cars to be fitted with disc brakes on both the front and rear axles. This was important because, as anyone who’s ever found themselves hurtling around a downhill bend a bit too quickly on a mountain bike will tell you, the real key to moving quickly isn't how fast you can go, it's how fast you can stop.
Climb aboard the Jag and it’s the seats that impress most. Great big leather-trimmed affairs from a time untroubled by today’s obsession with enormous side bolsters, they’re as sumptuous as they look. The dashboard, which is mostly constructed from one huge slab of walnut, features the familiar white-on-black Smiths dials and switches used on pretty much every British-built car of the period. When they’re working (and on this particular example most of them do), they’re a model of elegant simplicity.
The driving experience is all about that glorious straight-six XK engine though. You stoke it up with a prod of a dash-mounted starter button. It fires with a flourish and settles to an even idle. You wouldn’t call it smooth, but the XK was always a purposeful sounding unit. The advantage of having just two carburettors instead of three is that they’re easier to balance and even from cold, the 3.8 pulls cleanly. Back in the sixties, you’d have first needed to warm the hopeless crossply tyres to their task, taking things very carefully until they had some heat in them. Nowadays it’s only the four-speed gearbox that requires a degree of understanding whilst the cogs within limber up over the first few miles. Another trait shared with the earliest E-types.
Even when it is up to temperature, the manual ‘box is never quite as co-operative as you would like. It isn’t bad enough to ever become hard work though, and learning to use the motor to drive around it is rewarding enough to forgive any shortcomings in the transmission department. Given the chance, the 3.8 engine, developed from the motor used in Jaguar’s racing D-types of the fifties, belies its origins with a mellifluous surge towards the near 6000rpm redline. Addictive though it is, I don’t take it up that high more than once. To be honest, by five-and-a-half this engine has done its best work and considering its age, to try for more seemed almost crass.
I’m not going to be stupid and say that the Jag drives like a modern car, because it doesn’t. The grip isn’t bad. Although I suspect we have the advances of modern radial tyres to thank for that because the front end is a bit ponderous, and steering angles have to be adopted with a deal of conviction well in advance of any corner you wish to negotiate at speed. Power steering was an optional extra when new, although not one fitted to the test car. All 3.8’s got a limited-slip diff as standard, and although I didn’t try (well, not much anyway) it isn’t hard to conceive of the back end achieving some reasonably ridiculous angles should you so choose.
The ride is pretty good too, as you might expect from the people who went on to give us the superlatively comfy XJ6. The MkII isn’t actually as soft as motoring folklore might have you believe, but there’s a confidence in the way the car flows when up to speed, even on dampers which aren’t in their first flush of youth. All too often I’ve driven old cars with great engines, that have been let down by hopeless horse-and-cart suspension. Not so here, the underpinnings come close enough to matching the enormous motive force provided by that engine.
After a while, you really do begin to understand why the MkII really was popular as a getaway car. It can carry five adults and their luggage in tremendous style, and perhaps more importantly depending on the legitimacy of said luggage, at tremendous speed too.
Before the 3.8 came along, there were cars that could carry five, there were cars that looked good, and there were cars that went like hell. Even the very best could only manage two of these three qualities. The MkII 3.8 was the first car to really achieve all three. No wonder Jaguar advertised it with the slogan ‘Grace, Space and Pace.’ It truly was the first ever super-saloon. Or at least it is until someone else says it wasn't.
*I know it was technically a Ford Consul in 'The Sweeney'. Please stop writing in.